The rise of the social media community manager

As the world continues to get connected to the Internet and the number of people participating online using social media accelerates, the role of community manager is becoming one that more companies and organizations realize is a critical hire and one they need to consider now.

When the majority of online participants are always on and always connected — be it with laptops connected via WiFi in a coffee shop or with mobile or smartphones — more are connecting with one another in established social networks (e.g., Facebook, MySpace) or with micro-groups like those anyone can set up at providers like Ning; with micro-messaging platforms like Twitter and Identi.ca; using social bookmarking, photo, video and other offerings; and adjusting their attention and focus as they see fit in any number of possible places to do so online.

This Wikipedia article on social media sums up just some of the places this diffusion of attention can be placed: “Social media can take many different forms, including Internet forums, weblogs, wikis, podcasts, pictures and video. Technologies include: blogs, picture-sharing, vlogs, wall-postings, email, instant messaging, music-sharing, crowdsourcing, and voice over IP, to name a few. Examples of social media applications are Google Groups (reference, social networking), Wikipedia (reference), MySpace (social networking), Facebook (social networking), Youmeo (social network aggregation), Last.fm (personal music), YouTube (social networking and video sharing), Avatars United (social networking), Second Life (virtual reality), Flickr (photo sharing), Twitter (social networking and microblogging) and other microblogs such as Jaiku and Pownce. Many of these social media services can be integrated via social network aggregation platforms like Mybloglog and Plaxo.”

If you haven’t poked around (or at least tried out) any of those areas or offerings in the social media category, even understanding the nomenclature and what each social media type enables is an incredible challenge. Where do you start?

For those leaders who realize that embarking on the use of social media without any experience is a fool’s errand, more and more companies are addressing the necessity of having an experienced person or team managing their online community or ecosystem and are creating and hiring a community manager who understands where people connect online, how to connect and converse with them, and how to do so in the right way.

The main challenges for any company or organization are embodied in these questions:

How and where do we engage customers and prospects?

How do we create an authentic, appropriate presence online that allows us to get in the conversation?

Once we’re connected with people online and engaged in social media conversations, how should or do we conduct ourselves?

What is spam or overt selling that is all about us and not about the people with whom we’re connected?

Is our engagement with a community all about us and what we want … or are we figuring out how to add value to the community and if so, how?

Marketers struggle with how to create marketing campaigns that enable their messages to be at the touch points of prospects and customers since, most would agree, their messages no longer are easily distributed in “traditional” media channels like TV, radio, newspapers or magazines. The always-on, always-connected participants are investing little attention in to these older channels of delivery.

Brand managers scramble to figure out how to deal with positive, neutral or negative discussions, blog posts, Twitter messages or social network discussions about their brands.

Product managers wrestle with how to find ways to ensure their product development is actually on-target or that the needs of their target segments actually are interested in what is being developed or enhanced.

Rise of the community manager role
The community manager position is increasingly one that is at the pivot point between the needs of the organization and the needs of the community and engages in aligning both and enabling a conversational attitude that is meaningful for both sides.

Jeremiah Owyang, a senior analyst in social computing at Forrester Research and a leading voice in social media, recently published his Four Tenets of the Community Manager since, as he says in this post, he’s “…been some doing research on the Community Manager role, which is appearing at most brands that take online communities and communication seriously.

The Four Tenets of the Community Manager
In the following, I’m not going to list out all my findings, but it was clear there were four tenets, or beliefs, that each role holds. In nearly all the job descriptions, the following beliefs were spelled out as requirements for the role.

1) A Community Advocate
As a community advocate, the community managers’ primary role is to represent the customer. This includes listening, which results in monitoring, and being active in understanding what customers are saying in both the corporate community as well as external websites. Secondly, they engage customers by responding to their requests and needs or just conversations, both in private and in public.

2) Brand Evangelist
In this evangelistic role (it goes both ways) the community manager will promote events, products and upgrades to customers by using traditional marketing tactics and conversational discussions. As proven as a trusted member of the community (tenet 1) the individual has a higher degree of trust and will offer good products.

3) Savvy Communication Skills, Shapes Editorial
This tenet, which is both editorial planning and mediation serves the individual well. The community manager should first be very familiar with the tools of communication, from forums, to blogs, to podcasts, to Twitter, and then understand the language and jargon that is used in the community. This individual is also responsible for mediating disputes within the community and will lean on advocates and embrace detractors – and sometimes removing them completely. Importantly, the role is responsible for the editorial strategy and planning within the community, and will work with many internal stakeholders to identify content, plan, publish and follow-up.

4) Gathers Community Input for Future Product and Services
Perhaps the most strategic of all tenets, community managers are responsible for gathering the requirements of the community in a responsible way and presenting it to product teams. This may involve formal product requirements methods from surveys to focus groups, to facilitating the relationships between product teams and customers. The opportunity to build better products and services through this real-time live focus group are ripe; in many cases, customer communities have been waiting for a chance to give feedback.

Owyang has this ‘web strategist’ job board that includes many community manager openings on it.

Connie Bensen
Connie Bensen

Minnesota has our own highly visible community strategist thought leader, Connie Bensen, who has been crafting — along with other social media thought leaders — the scope, breadth and depth of what a community manager role might entail as this position develops into a mission-critical one for most companies.

Bensen, a resident of northwest Minnesota, is someone I first connected with after following her blog via BuzzTracker’s Social Media aggregation page, then followed her on Twitter and she me, and now since she’s involved in the social media analytics space that I’m getting my arms around this month, we’ve exchanged emails about a company she’s representing in that space.

What strikes me about the nascent community manager role is embodied in Bensen’s Resources page that she has assembled on her blog. Reading and skimming these articles makes it clear that the evolving social media space is one where there isn’t a single set of best practices, role definitions or tasks to undertake. Instead, there is a general framework, or set of guidelines, that every other thought-leader seems to be embracing.

In many ways, this evolving community manager role is much like the social media space itself: It’s just beginning and is changing rapidly. People quickly find more efficient or fun ways of connecting (especially as more and more smartphones come with GPS capability, enabling people to find one another and connect because of proximity) and no one knows where the next social media phenomenon will emerge, whether early adopters and influencers are migrating to them, and only someone deeply involved will recognize that and determine when the right time is for his or her company or organization to engage in it.

One thing is clear, however, to anyone who observes or participates in social media: Ignoring it if you’re an individual, company or organization is no longer an option. Treating social media connection or your participation in it in a cavalier, inattentive or non-savvy way is done at your own peril. But hiring a community manager, getting in the game and playing is absolutely critical, and smart companies and organizations are doing so by bringing on board a person or team to act in that role now.

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